Apologetics,  Christian Living,  Culture,  Ethics

Early Christian Opposition to Abortion

Abortion is killing of a baby

Honestly, I am not surprised when some people claim to be Christians yet support abortion. I guess I am used to people claiming to be Christians, while denying that claim by supporting all sorts of immoral nonsense. It is easy to claim to be a Christian. However, following Jesus is not easy. Rather, it is the mark of a genuine believer to follow the teachings of Jesus with one’s life (John 13:35; 1 John 2:3).

So although I have seen my fair share of self-identifying Christians support abortion, I must admit I was a bit surprised recently when I saw a pastor of a megachurch come out and say abortion and Christianity are completely compatible. Of course a Christian analysis of this situation would affirm that abortion remains incompatible with a Christian worldview, but it speaks volumes that a well known mega church pastor thinks abortion is something good to be affirmed.

Although a pastor supporting abortion is in and of itself rather shocking, I received another shock when examining the 2020 findings of Lifeway Research in their biannual State of Theology analysis. In the 2020 survey of 3,002 respondents, Lifeway Research found that only 51% of Americans agreed with the statement, “Abortion is a sin.”

abortion agreement/disagreement statistics
Results for the statement, “Abortion is a sin.”
https://thestateoftheology.com/

Abortion and the Bible

The reason this is so surprising to me, is because the theology of Scripture is so clear. All human beings are made in the image of God (Gen 1:27). There is no reason to exclude preborn children from this category. Biblically, children are treated as persons before their birth (Ps 139:13–16), and they even are able to respond to what God is doing on the outside (Luke 1:39–41). It comes as no surprise that Mosaic Law expects justice to be done to an individual who causes harm to a preborn child (Exod 21:22–25).

Although there is no indication Josephus was a believer, he provides a good 1st century witness to the Jewish understanding of the Law. He understood the Old Testament Law to forbid abortion.

The law, moreover enjoins us to bring up all our offspring, and forbids women to cause abortion of what is begotten, or to destroy it afterward; and if any woman appears to have so done, she will be a murderer of her child, by destroying a living creature, and diminishing humankind (Against Apion, 2:202).

Abortion and the Early Christians

Abortion was commonplace in Greek and Roman societies. However, from the earliest records we have, the church strongly opposed abortion and took steps to care for unwanted children.

One of the earliest documents we have from the early church is The Letter of Barnabas, which dates to late 1st century or early 2nd century AD. Barnabas prohibits abortion in the midst of a string of commands:

Thou shalt love thy neighbour more than thy own life. Thou shalt not procure abortion, thou shalt not commit infanticide (Barnabas, 19:5).  

Similarly, The Didache, which is an early Christian summary of doctrine dating to the same time period notes the following:

Thou shalt not procure abortion, nor commit infanticide (Didache, 2:1)

Marcus Felix was a Roman lawyer who converted to Christianity in the 2nd or 3rd century AD. He wrote Octavius, which was one of the first apologetic defenses of Christianity. The capstone of his argument is that Christians “do not preach great things, but live them.” (38:6). With regard to abortion, apparently some in the Roman community accused Christians of murdering infants and drinking their blood. In response, Marcus Felix writes in chapter 30 of his work that the murder of babies was a gentile practice only:

“There are some women who, by drinking medical preparations, extinguish the source of the future man in their very bowels, and thus commit a parricide before they bring forth.”

But for a Christian, Marcus argued, “To us it is not lawful either to see or to hear of homicide; and so much do we shrink from human blood, that we do not use the blood even of eatable animals in our food.”

Athenagoras was another Ante-Nicene apologist (probably from Athens) who lived during the 2nd century AD. In his apology, A Plea for the Christians, Athenagoras promotes the fact that Christians condemn all forms of murder, and he specifically talks about abortion.

And when we say that those women who use drugs to bring on abortion commit murder, and will have to give an account to God for the abortion, on what principle should we commit murder? For it does not belong to the same person to regard the very fœtus in the womb as a created being, and therefore an object of God’s care, and when it has passed into life, to kill it; and not to expose an infant, because those who expose them are chargeable with child-murder, and on the other hand, when it has been reared to destroy it (A Plea for Christians, Ch 35).

Logically, because Christians were against abortion they were also against infanticide, which was often practiced in the Roman world by leaving an infant exposed out in the elements. Christians were known to adopt many of these exposed children and to raise them as their own. The exposed children would often die despite the care of the Christians. There are many inscriptions on tombs in the catacombs which demonstrate that Christians considered the children part of their family and saw to a proper burial for them.  

Tertullian is a well-known 3rd century apologist, and he spoke with great clarity against abortion.  

In our case, murder being once for all forbidden, we may not destroy even the fœtus in the womb, while as yet the human being derives blood from other parts of the body for its sustenance. To hinder a birth is merely a speedier man-killing; nor does it matter whether you take away a life that is born, or destroy one that is coming to the birth. (The Apology, Ch 9)

Tertullian also gives testimony of an early belief that life begins at conception (this is not a novel idea by Christians). In his discussion on the human soul he notes the following:

Now we allow that life begins with conception, because we contend that the soul also begins from conception (The Apology, Ch 27).

John Chrysostom (c. 347–407 AD), one of the most celebrated orators of the early church spoke very harshly about abortion—calling it something worse than murder!

You see how drunkenness leads to whoredom, whoredom to adultery, adultery to murder; or rather to a something even worse than murder. For I have no name to give it, since it does not take off the thing born, but prevent its being born (Homilies on Romans, Ch 24).

The evidence could go on and on, but I think it is sufficient to say that it has always been intrinsically Christian to oppose abortion because abortion is the killing of innocent life. The fact that there are major pastors today who support abortion does not change that fact. The fact that only 51% of so-called Christians think abortion is wrong does not change the truth of the matter. The fact that almost half of so-called Christians do not oppose abortion says more about their phony claim of being Christian than anything else.  

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He is a husband, father, and sports enthusiast.

5 Comments

  • Lorelei C

    I enjoyed your well balanced read on this. And a number of your other essays as well. With this subject, there is generally a great deal of “non-warmth” toward females who are the aborters. What are usually find lacking -and it wasn’t the topic of your essay but I would be curious if you would deal with it – would be the other half of the equation. Other than the Immaculate Conception, all those babies had a father. But it seems forgotten, or at least undealt with, the consequences of the “Hit and Run Fatherings” that are often the other half of the conception.

    • Peter Goeman

      Thanks for reading, Lorelei. It is absolutely correct that fathers who abandon the woman and the children is a real issue! And my heart goes out to those abandoned women and children. I definitely plan on addressing that issue at some point, but unfortunately, like everything, it is in the line of all other obligations I have :(

  • Stephen Coombs

    I agree whole-heartedly and have re-sent a link to this text on twitter. I wish however it had been composed with more care. Among other things, 1) implying that the reader is probably not taking hisher Christianity seriously isn’t, as they say nowadays, “a good look”, it’s beside the point and weakens your case: 2) stating that “abortion and Christianity are compatible” is not to say that “abortion is something good to be affirmed” – the attentive reader will suspect that you’re not being trustworthy in other matters too : 3) the presentation of solid evidence is spoilt by so much insistence on your own feelings of surprise and shock – they don’t inspire confidence in the writer’s objectivity.

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